When the Romance Ends, but the Brand Goes On

Normally in January, Tamara Ralph presents a runway extravaganza as part of Paris couture week. This year, however, Ms. Ralph, the creative director of Ralph & Russo, alongside her longtime partner in life and business, Michael Russo, decided to postpone the latest collection because of the pandemic.

A few days later, the Australian fashion designer also unveiled a look of a different kind: motherhood. Not to mention the redesigned relationship status between her and Mr. Russo that first made headlines last year.

It turns out that the pair quietly ended their engagement. Instead, Ms. Ralph has started a family with her new partner, the Anglo-Indian billionaire Bhanu Choudhrie. Their first child, Haliya, was born on Jan. 28 — the same date as the Ralph & Russo couture show that didn’t happen.

“It’s a complete blessing,” Ms. Ralph said a week before the birth on a call from her home in London.

Having been in lockdown working for the duration of her pregnancy, she documented her newfound joy on Instagram in a series of photo shoots. In one post, she wears a vast crown of flowers, her eyes closed, her bump wrapped in powder pink tulle; in another, she’s in a strapless taffeta gown. In a post in celebration of Diwali, she and her new partner are dressed in matching black polo shirts, kissing, book ended by two identical fluffy dogs.

“Having a little girl makes me want to do even more with our business, like expanding faster into children’s wear,” Ms. Ralph said. “But I also know I’ll need to find more balance now, something I didn’t do so well at in the past. I was always so focused on my work.”

While Ms. Ralph, 39, and Mr. Russo, 40, may have broken up personally, in a joint interview last month they were fully coordinated on a commitment to staying together professionally: chiming in after each other’s sentences, supporting each other’s ideas.

Ralph & Russo was always a brand carefully built on offering fantasy and Cinderella stories. There was the love affair of the two founders, which began when they collided on a London street corner and culminated in the creation of a couture house from scratch.

Then there was their ritual appearance hand in hand on the catwalk at the end of a show, and their frequent mentions in glossy magazines as fashion’s most talked-about couple. Not to mention their coronation as bespoke outfitters of choice for some of the world’s wealthiest women, often outpacing the establishment houses for V.I.P. commissions.

It was Ralph & Russo, for example, that made the $77,000 sheer gown with strategic embroideries worn by the Duchess of Sussex to announce her engagement to Prince Harry in 2017. Ralph & Russo that was responsible for the dove gray skirt suit Angelina Jolie wore to accept her honorary damehood from Queen Elizabeth II. And Ralph & Russo that created the glittering wide-leg blush-toned trouser look Priyanka Chopra wore as part of her wedding celebrations to Nick Jonas.

The house, which in 2014 became the first British couture company in more than a century to be deemed skilled enough to show its collections at Paris Couture Week, also has a large client list of Middle Eastern royalty and Asian billionaires.

For some couples in business together, the end of a love affair can spell the end of the professional partnership, as was the case with Chris and Tory Burch. After their divorce in 2006, there was a very public tug of war between Ms. Burch and her ex-husband when Mr. Burch, who was also her former business partner, started his own lifestyle brand.

But when you’ve got millions of dollars tied up in a fashion brand that bears both of your names, there is incentive to move past a breakup — just ask Dolce & Gabbana, who began their brand as a couple, broke up in 2005, and remain steadfast business partners.

Though even they acknowledged it wasn’t always easy. In a 2012 interview with The Financial Times, Stefano Gabbana said, “The worst time for us was when we broke up but kept working together. We thought about splitting up, but no. And the truth is, everything is exactly the same. But no sex!”

Serge Carreira, a lecturer at the French university Sciences Po, noted that what a couple is selling is an idea of themselves as both aspiration and inspiration, their work life, love life and how it all fits together become part of the story. “There are always risks when couples build businesses together,” he said.

“But in fashion, there are many examples where people decide to put aside personal differences at the end of a relationship” he continued. “The passion gets transferred toward ensuring the survival of all they created and its enduring success.”

As with other high-profile cases in fashion where a business partnership survived a split, whether it was Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé or Giancarlo Giammetti and Valentino Garavani, both Ms. Ralph and Mr. Russo are determined to make a success of this newly platonic chapter in their lives.

And while both were willing to address the subject directly, neither seemed particularly eager to dwell on any specifics of their split. Instead they presented a tightly choreographed and controlled united front.

“Although we are no longer together romantically, there is still trust and respect. That hasn’t changed,” Mr. Russo said last month from Dubai (he splits his time between that city and London, since the Middle East is the brand’s largest market.) Ms. Ralph splits her time between London and the South of France, and has lived with Mr. Choudhrie since his divorce settlement to his ex-wife was finalized last year.

Did Mr. Russo have any tips for former couples in a similar sort of position?

“Gosh, advice? Er, no. Not really,” he said.

Ms. Ralph quickly interjected that the key to making this kind of transition was to concentrate on each other’s strengths and to maintain focus on any shared aspirations. She then deftly changed the topic to their plans to expand their business from couture into a luxury empire, without losing the aura of exclusivity that led clients to spend $50,000 on a single dress with the brand in the first place.

Over the years, footwear, accessories and a ready-to-wear line have been introduced, fueled in part by a £40 million investment ($55 million) by Tennor Holding in 2019. Beauty and home interiors are now in the works, as are expansion plans in China, and a new store in New York, joining existing stores in London, Paris, Monte Carlo, Dubai and Doha.

Although demand for couture dropped significantly last year because of the pandemic, Ms. Ralph has continued to design private collections for its biggest and most loyal clients, with watercolor sketches in handcrafted boxes flown to homes and palaces.

The brand began to produce leisure wear designs, and a digital avatar was used to present its couture collection shown in July, posing in front of destinations like the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China. Still, strict national lockdowns in Europe in the wake of a third wave of infections meant that safe production in London of the latest collection, as well as completing existing orders, eventually became impossible for the atelier.

Still, Mr. Russo said, demand had started to pick up again as China and the Gulf return to a degree of normalcy and weddings and events return to calendars. “These milestone celebrations may be on a different scale for now, but people aren’t waiting around anymore,” Ms. Ralph said. “They are moving ahead with their lives.”

As, indeed, are Ms. Ralph and Mr. Russo. When Ms. Ralph, who is now on maternity leave, posted her first photo of Haliya on Instagram on Feb. 4, saying that she had “never known a love like this,” Mr. Russo — with an emoji comment of three red hearts — was among the first to congratulate her.

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